Philanthropy Journal of North Carolina – Change requires change agents

By Todd Cohen

Mired in economic and social distress in the backyard of our state’s metro regions, rural North Carolina is getting a helping hand from a handful of foundations that are reshaping the way philanthropy does business.

Their pioneering initiatives reflect both the crushing challenges facing our rural counties and the failure of traditional strategies to hatch and foster new industry.

As Chapel Hill think-tank MDC Inc. recommends in its recent report, “State of the South 2002,” states need to revamp the way they push for economic growth.

The approach, MDC says, should be comprehensive, integrated, strategic, collaborative and performance-driven – buzzwords that mean we need to think big, be practical, work together, pay attention to the impact we have and learn from mistakes.

While the focus of the foundation programs targeting rural North Carolina differ from one another, they share the critical elements MDC champions.

The Golden Leaf Foundation, for example, is investing $85.4 million in venture funds, alternative-fuels production, jobs training, a loan program and other initiatives to boost rural development.

The Duke Endowment is spending $10 million to back collaborative efforts to address rural needs, while a group of business and civic leaders has formed the new Foundation of Renewal for Eastern North Carolina to help brand and market the region and broker investment in new enterprise.

Philanthropy by its very nature aims to make change happen, particularly in the case of big social problems that seem beyond the grasp of government to understand or handle.

But American philanthropy also has dug itself into a rut, doling out grants to pet causes but failing to risk the time, thought and dollars needed to mount a coordinated assault on the seemingly intractable and unrelated problems our society faces.

The efforts by Golden Leaf, Duke and the Foundation for Renewal may not all succeed. But those philanthropies are looking at the big picture and investing in change based on teamwork among business, government and nonprofits.

In its report, MDC also calls for gearing universities, community colleges and nonprofit leaders to prepare public officials to address the South’s challenges, and to foster a new generation of grassroots civic leaders.

Our region indeed faces a crisis in leadership. Whether in government, education, business or philanthropy, many of our leaders are frozen in the face of overwhelming social problems, unable or unwilling to lead by thinking ahead, taking risks and building bridges to organizations and resources needed to attack at their roots the ills we face in common.

A handful of philanthropies, however, are breaking new ground and creating a model for social change – and for leadership.

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